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What is Dysautonomia by Stacy Muehlher

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Dysautonomia is a term used for dysfunction of the autonomic nervous system, which regulates many involuntary processes within the body. Heart rate, blood pressure, sweating, and the dilation of blood vessels are just some of the functions controlled by this complex system.  Within our blood vessels and internal organs, nerves carry sensory impulses to our brains, where they are processed without our conscious knowledge. Based on the information received, the brain then makes millions of minute adjustments to our bodies to keep us functioning properly. Every time you stand from a sitting position, a complex conversation is taking place between the nerves within your blood vessels and your brain. This is how our body knows to react to an upright position by restricting blood vessels to force more blood volume upward from your legs toward your heart. Every time you eat, your autonomic nervous system is what tells your body to perform the many tasks necessary to move food through your digestive tract. In some cases, either genetic disorders, diseases of the nervous system, or viral infections cause these conversations between the autonomic nervous system and the brain to become interrupted or impaired, causing an ailment termed dysautonomia.

In some cases, disease processes, such as Parkinson’s disease or diabetes, can cause dysautonomia. In other cases, viral or bacterial infections make their way into the body and cause damage to the brain or nerves of the autonomic nervous system. In either case, dysautonomia causes multiple and varying symptoms in its sufferers. Since almost any involuntary process within the body is controlled, or in some way affected by the autonomic nervous system, its improper function can cause symptoms related to the heart, blood pressure, digestion and various other organ systems. Sufferers commonly experience problems with fainting, bowel and bladder irregularity, regulation of body temperature, lightheadedness, irregular perspiration, and various other symptoms.

There are several syndromes associated with the generic term dysautonomia.  Orthostatic intolerance is one such syndrome. This syndrome occurs when the autonomic nerves within the blood vessels fail to communicate or respond to the brain’s commands to restrict when a person stands to an upright position. This causes the pooling of blood in the legs, and an insufficient amount being pumped back to the heart and then to the brain. The effects of this are felt as lightheadedness, fainting, and increased heart rate. The symptoms are sometimes alleviated by lying down, or by drinking a large volume of liquid a few moments prior to standing up. A person is said to be clinically diagnosed with orthostatic intolerance if their blood pressure decreases, in combination with an increase in heart rate of 30 beats per minute or more within ten minutes of standing.

Dysautonomia is incurable, but in many cases, treatment of the underlying disease process, or treatment for the symptoms may allow its sufferers to lead normal, productive lives. In some cases, it can be progressive and result in total failure of the autonomic nervous system, leading to life-threatening complications with the body’s life-sustaining functions such as heart rate or blood pressure.  Much research is being done to advance the understanding and treatment of this disorder.






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